Best Of British Exposed Gaping Holes

In ancient Greece, they lost it a second time.

Yet in defeat Liverpool surely won a degree of respect, however grudging from some quarters, even as Milan lifted the trophy for the seventh time. This was a better overall performance than they managed in 2005 or than Arsenal did in 2006 or Manchester United did in 1999. This was the best performance in a European Cup final by a side from these shores since Graeme Souness led his men to victory on penalties on Roma’s home ground in 1984. It ended in defeat because despite the gameplan working for long periods the execution was lacking in the crucial area – and, unlike in 2005, the breaks went Milan’s way.

There will be criticism of Rafael Benitez’s tactics and certainly the introduction of Peter Crouch should have come earlier. But there was nothing wrong with the initial plan, which made Milan’s status as favourites look misplaced.

The lack of a second striker was apparently due, to quote the front page of the site, to a lack of ‘balls’. But placing Steven Gerrard where he could do the most damage while having the fewest defensive responsibilities was not a negative move. The player himself will be replaying that one-on-one, especially. Nor was the selection of two wide men a sign of caution.

You could see why Benitez had picked Jermaine Pennant, and you could see why most people have doubts about him. He hassled well and dealt with his early shot in what appeared to be a sensible manner, aiming for the far post and forcing Dida to parry into what could have been the path of a red shirt.

The difficulty, given some of Pennant’s other decisions, is that you have to wonder whether he just got lucky on that occasion.

Similarly with Bolo Zenden, most notably when he showed a lack of trust in his captain when presented with a chance to cross. Gerrard was there, close to the six-yard box, but Zenden could not see him and failed to try to find him, hesitation leading to a goal-kick.

None the less, the tactics and especially Gerrard’s hassling and the hard work of Dirk Kuyt created what were effectively counterattacking opportunities within 30 yards of the Milan goal. Meanwhile, Javier Mascherano was doing a fine job of shackling Kaka and Milan were plainly second best. But not on the scoreboard.

Xabi Alonso fouled early and often, so it was more a surprise that he wasn’t booked than that he gave away a free-kick in a dangerous area. Andrea Pirlo’s shot was covered but not the deflection from Pippo Inzaghi.

And if Liverpool’s shape was less effective when they were in possession and had a shortage of men in the penalty area, it worked less well once Milan had a lead to try to protect. More than once Kuyt was out on the wing, crossing into an area where Kuyt himself should have been waiting.

Benitez was left looking for a way to change it, lucky not to be 2-0 down after Kaka was flagged when only Inzaghi, admittedly close to the ball, had strayed too far forward.

And that first substitution shows where things have gone wrong for the Spaniard: in the transfer market. The fact that the eternally convalescent Harry Kewell was next man up shows that the attempts to add width to the strong central base have failed. Pennant is getting on a bit to be that raw but has probably done enough to earn another season; Zenden, Mark Gonzalez and Kewell have contributed next to nothing.

But I’m pretty sure the Liverpool manager knows all this, as his previous attempts to sign Simao Sabrosa, for instance, demonstrate. Get that right and his team will be a very awkward proposition whoever is signed or picked up front.

It was a sound enough plan but did not produce a goal and so had to be changed; perhaps the hesitation was fatal. Mascherano was unlucky to be withdrawn, perhaps the result of a booking that he had done little to deserve, compared to Alonso. Kaka used the newfound space to set up Inzaghi for a goal the striker took very well.

And, despite Kuyt’s late (offside?) effort, that was that, with a little help from Herbert Fandel’s timekeeping. It was a much better spectacle than Saturday’s FA Cup final and it’s a shame there wasn’t more of it – at least 45 seconds.

You could understand Benitez’s immediate annoyance and be relieved that he played down the incident in interviews. Perhaps he realised that though Liverpool were going home losers, they had come a long way in two years. The question is, can they keep progressing?

In 2005 we saw an unrepeatable match in which the gulf between the sides appeared all but unbridgeable for long periods. This was a match between two equals – I wonder if there will be more sequels, and where the balance of power will lie if there are.

Phil Cornwall, Football 365

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